“Who is directly impacted?”; Learning to be an effective White activist with my nine-year-old
I’m the White, cisgender (defined as when one’s gender corresponds to their assigned sex) mother of a White child, and a preschool teacher in Columbus, Ohio. I live with my partner and our nine-year-old, who is gender creative, uses the pronouns they/them/theirs, and who chose to use the initial “T.” as their name in this piece. I started talking about race and racism with T. about a year and half ago.
Every first Thursday of the month, T., my nine-year-old, and I have a date together. We go to a bar we both like for pizza and I like for cocktails, and then we go to our monthly Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) meeting. The meeting is located in a library, and there are usually brownies, and T. loves books and sweets, so it’s a good night out.
While we were at the bar, T. said, “All of the people in here have light skin.”
“You’re right. And the library where our SURJ meeting is has mostly Black people,” I replied.
“Except in our meeting room. I kind of wish that more Black people would be a part of SURJ,” T. shared.
I panicked, wondering if somehow T. had gotten the picture that only White people are working for racial justice, and don’t see people of color as the leaders of the work. I was ready to launch into a mini-lecture about Black and brown leaders and movements, but then I thought to ask T. what they meant.
“It would be better if Black people were going to SURJ rather than us because they know what needs to change, why it needs to change, and how it will change,” T. replied.
“So if you think that Black people have the most knowledge about how to work on racial justice, what do you think the best way is for White people to learn and make sure that they’re working in the best way?”
“We should ask them personally: ‘Do you think what we’re doing right now is going to be productive for the right thing, and if not, how should we change?’ Weren’t you saying a bit ago that you got a lot of negative feedback from Black people saying that SURJ isn’t doing the right thing? If someone says something negative about you, take it as a chance to ask them: ‘If we’re not doing it right, how can we do it right?’”
T. was talking about DiDi Delgado’s piece, which had hit me hard and spurred a lot of reflection about my role as a White organizer. I had been working with other White people to make our children’s school more equitable for kids of color, and was now questioning our role in that work.
I told T. that their dad had given me an interesting way to think about my questions about my role. He’d said, “Imagine that when we got to our school in kindergarten there was already a group of families that was working on supporting gender diversity at school but all of those families had cisgender kids (again, cisgender is when one’s gender corresponds to their assigned sex). Would you be glad that they were already working on it?”
T. replied: “I would be glad for two reasons. For one reason, people are thinking about me and trying to help, and for a second reason there’s someone out there that knows this is happening and knows that we need to change it. Then when we arrived and we said that our family actually has personal experience with this I would like them to say, ‘Oh good, tell us more about how your experience is going’ since we’re directly affected by it.”
“So you would want them to realize that you had important ideas to share,” I clarified.
“I would want them to realize that we were what they were supporting and give us a voice in their movement for change,” T. said.
OK. So we were talking about how to center the people most directly affected by an issue. To be honest, this is a concept that has taken me a long time to learn, so it was very powerful to hear my nine-year-old say these words.
I thought it was time to bring the conversation back to SURJ and why we have mostly White people in the room. I told T. about a time 15 years ago when I was taking a class focused on anti-racist teaching. Our class was multiracial, and one day I shared my process of coming to see my own racist beliefs and stereotypes. I described my surprise in realizing that a young Black, male teacher was promoting a yoga retreat. After class, the teacher pulled me aside to tell me I needed to think about the impact my comments could have on the Black women in the room—I was talking about my biases against their brothers, fathers, uncles, cousins.
T. reflected: “But it’s good because you were saying you realized that you had that stereotype. They should be glad.”
“But I was talking about their family members and their friends as if I just didn’t expect them to be complex people with different interests. How do you think that could have felt?”
“I’m guessing they would’ve been sort of insulted.”
“I think you’re totally right—I think it was insulting and I think it could have also been really painful.”
At this point T. said that they wished we didn’t have to say “White” and “Black” so much. I was a little worried about a “color-blind” desire, so I asked why.
“I wish we didn’t have to say ‘Black’ and ‘White’ because it makes it seem like the only thing about them is their race and it seems like people aren’t unique.” I agreed that people are more than their race, but told T. that when we’re having a conversation about race it’s really useful to be able to say “Black people” and “White people.”
“In the story I just told you about my class, for example, it was really important for me to be aware of the races of the people in the room so that I could consider who was hearing my words. When we’re talking about racism, we need to notice race and think about who should be speaking in the moment.”
I wanted to make a connection for T. back to gender diversity since that is the topic where our family is directly affected, and it might help T. understand that it’s nice when people don’t share all of their baggage in front of people who are impacted by it.
“Here’s a connection for me. When I hear somebody who doesn’t understand gender diversity saying things about gender creative and trans people, it’s hurtful for me. For example, some teachers I teach with don’t understand why it’s so important that they include genders other than ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in the way they talk with their students and in the stories they read. I know that these teachers can learn and grow, but I don’t want to be around for those conversations because it’s painful for me. I want other people to help them learn more about gender diversity so I don’t have to do it. So, it’s similar for SURJ. There are primarily White people in the room because White people are helping other White people learn about racism in a place where people of color don’t have to hear it. Then we get to join in the movement to work for change.”
“That’s good then. People of color should be leading the actions; we shouldn’t be the ones performing it. We should be working with them and defending them but we shouldn’t be the leaders.”
“Right. But we need to be checking in and listening to people of color to know what is important. If White people made decisions on our own it would be like the group of parents of cisgender kids talking with the principal about how to make school better for us without our input.”
I might have learned as much from this conversation as T. did. I learned some conversation pragmatics, like ask questions instead of lecture (because I’m often misinterpreting something my kid says!). But also, talking about the concept of keeping people directly impacted by an issue at the center really deepened my own understanding.
I don’t have easy answers for how to educate myself and other White people while listening closely to people of color, and I’m messing up as often as I’m getting it right. I hope that T. grows up to be more fluent in this stuff than I am, as well as more resilient and less fragile.
Sarae Pacetta is the White, cisgender mother of a White child, and a preschool teacher in Columbus, Ohio.